Gene Smith confident Ohio State football team will play Michigan State and Michigan

Bill Rabinowitz
Buckeye Xtra

Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith expressed confidence in his podcast released Thursday that the Buckeyes’ final two football games of the regular season will be played.

On the Gene Smith Podcast – the first episode since May – Smith was more definitive about Saturday’s game at Michigan State. But he said he was optimistic that next week’s game against Michigan won’t be canceled.

“I feel good about the Michigan State game,” Smith told co-host Ben Waite of the Buckeye Club. “That's obviously right here on our doorstep, and we will play.”

Ohio State canceled its game last week against Illinois because of an outbreak of COVID-19 within the program. Michigan’s game against Maryland scheduled for Saturday was called off earlier this week because of COVID cases among the Wolverines.

ESPN college football Kirk Herbstreit caused a firestorm Tuesday night when he suggested that struggling Michigan might “wave the white flag” rather than play the heavily favored Buckeyes. Herbstreit, a former Ohio State quarterback, quickly apologized, saying he had no evidence for his assertion.

Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith watches the Buckeye take on Clemson during the College Football Playoff Semifinal game in the PlayStation Fiesta Bowl at State Farm Stadium in Glendale, Ariz. December 28, 2019. [Kyle Robertson/Dispatch]

Smith said he expects the Wolverines to be in Columbus a week from Saturday.

“They have a lot to play for,” Smith said. “I know that they're having some challenges this week because they had to shut down. But I think they'll be back. I know they enhanced their protocols.

“They stopped on Monday. So that gives them a good seven days to try and basically do what we did – to try to make the corrections that need to be made. I think they'll be back and we should be able to play unless they have a rash that’s uncontrollable. I know they want to play. I'm sure that they're working hard to make sure they have the chance to play.”

Smith made his comments before the Detroit Free Press reported Friday that Michigan athletic officials are pessimistic about their ability to travel to Columbus to play Ohio State, three people with direct knowledge of the situation told the newspaper.

The pessimism comes as officials conduct contact tracing and await testing results on players and staff. At least a dozen members of the football program tested positive for COVID-19 this week. 

Smith said the No. 4 Buckeyes (4-0) will be short-handed against Michigan State because of the COVID cases from last week that will require players to sit out. It is not known how many will be missing.

The Spartans are 2-3 under first-year coach Mel Tucker, but they upset previously undefeated Northwestern last week.

“Michigan State is much better,” Smith said. “Mel Tucker was a great hire. There are some holdover players, obviously, from the (Mark) Dantonio days, so they're tough kids anyway because that's what Mark recruited. And they're buying into this system. So I think they're going to be a really tough challenge for us.”

The Buckeyes will be without head coach Ryan Day, who is in quarantine after testing positive for COVID. Smith said Day’s spirits have improved as the week has progressed.

“He's feeling better,” Smith said. “He is so focused and is so committed to making sure that the coaches and support staff and players get what they need. He's using technology to a great degree. But I could tell yesterday that he was a little bit more upbeat and that's probably because we're moving towards playing.”

Smith said he and Day discussed various contingency plans even before the coach tested positive. Day suggested that if he was unavailable that defensive line coach Larry Johnson take over as acting head coach.

“There was no hesitation, no pause,” Smith said. “It was instant. Larry was the guy.”

He said that’s because of Johnson connects with the entire team, not just his defensive line unit.

“We have talent, there's no question,” Smith said. “We have good teachers who are guys from an X or O point of view are going to do what they're taught to do. But the motivation, the care around their individual situation or just the group as a whole, Larry gets it. Larry is so connected to the vibe of the team. They relate to him.

“As we move into the Michigan State game, motivation is going to be huge, and he’s going to contribute to that. When Ryan said it, I thought it was a perfect choice and supported it. I'm really glad he's in that seat.”

Smith also shared some of the timeline regarding the Illinois cancellation. He said that earlier in the COVID crisis, the Buckeyes had a test-positivity rate that was “higher than we like.” Then it fell to being “pretty flat” until last week.

There were some positive tests early in the week and Smith said they spiked as Saturday approached. Still, Smith said he had been optimistic the Buckeyes could play until Friday afternoon.

The game was scheduled for noon Eastern time. Smith said the Big Ten’s television partners were willing to move the game back to 3:30 p.m. He added there was even some discussion of playing on Sunday, though that was not ideal.

“Then our testing results came in later that evening, and we had to cancel,” Smith said.